Better to light a candle


Sometimes it takes a tragedy to bring old friends together. A letter or email from an old friend should be a happy occasion. It should give you a chance to reminisce, to remember good times, more innocent times, when you where younger and full of life, when the thoughts that ate you didn’t concern how you could make ends meet.


An email from an old friend reached me last week and I was happy at first to see her name on the computer screen, thinking how good it was that she made contact. But Maria wrote to me to tell me of a colleague, a friend, though I knew him little, who was killed while climbing the icy mountains of Scotland. She wrote to tell me Guy had died.


When, in what now seems like a past life, I joined the Society for Environmental Action at my university, along with the majority of first year students in my course, I suppose I harboured some high hopes that I could do my bit, even in the smallest way, to save the world.


The society met up on Wednesdays. We discussed nature, held demonstrations and organised campaigns. We had events, such as a retreat to the Yorkshire Moors where we booked a youth hostel and spent most of our time indoors, drinking and singing folk songs. We sat around in circles and discussed transcendentalism and the Gaia theory and other things that people tend to discuss when they are under the influence of something or other.


The campaigns were the focus, though. They were the ‘raison d'ętre’ of the society. We campaigned against the Newbury Bypass- the road that ended up tearing through an area of special scientific interest in Berkshire (with some members even being present at the ‘Battle of Newbury’ as it became known, chaining themselves to trees in peaceful protest); we campaigned against Third World debt, standing outside banks dressed in skeleton costumes and handing out leaflets, telling students to move their bank accounts; we campaigned against the unfair tribunal and hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa, and I, though I never was a public speaker, stood up to speak in front of hundreds of students about Saro-Wiwa just days before he was executed.


Throughout it all, our campaigns were often spearheaded by a bright-eyed, blonde young man who, more than anyone of us, kept challenging what he saw, and challenging the rest of us to do more than we thought we could.


Guy often wore an Amnesty International t-shirt then, which was emblazoned with the Amnesty logo and the words “Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”


And he kept lighting candles even after many of us began to accept the darkness in the world around us. Idly surfing on the net years later, searching for old friends, I would read about Guy, who became the Campaigns Director for the grassroots organization People and Planet, successfully campaigning for Third World debt relief and for ethical pension funds. Guy later founded the advocacy NGO/think tank Crisis Action.  


I didn’t know Guy very well, and never saw him again after he left university, but I could see from his energy, his passion and his commitment to the cause that in a modern world that seems like a sea of troubles, Guy was determined to be a ripple of hope.


All those years later, having lost and sometimes re-made contact with old classmates, I realize we never did get to change the world. Not many young people do. But we had some fun, we did some good things, we may even have changed some people’s minds or made a minor difference for the better- indeed sometimes we still try to. It’s just that most of us got sidetracked somewhere on the way.


Not Guy. He kept on trying to make a difference and in many ways he succeeded. He never stopped lashing out against injustice, never tired of campaigning for the good of those in the world who have no voice, no way of protecting themselves, no way of saying anything apart from, maybe “Thank you Guy Hughes. You will be sorely missed”.


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